ST. PETER — A panel of business and nonprofit leaders concluded the opening day of the Nobel Conference with a discussion ranging from worker shortages to caring for an aging population.

The Nobel Conference annually brings several renowned experts to Gustavus Adolphus College to discuss social and scientific issues ranging from drug addiction to sustainable energy. 

The first day of the conference concluded with a panel discussion on “economic balance in everyday life.”

Margaret Anderson Kelliher and Robert LaBombard talked about the slowdown of new small business formation and its contribution to a declining middle class.

Kelliher, a Gustavus graduate and president and CEO of the Minnesota High Tech Association, noted that today's new small businesses tend to have fewer employees than in the past.

LaBombard, CEO of GradStaff, reported that three-fourths of new jobs are created by small businesses, but currently more small businesses are closing than starting.

“If that sustains for the long-term we're in big trouble,” he said, adding that more needs to be done to support small start-ups.

Jodi Harpstead, president and CEO of Lutheran Social Services of Minnesota, said the state will need more volunteers to help care for aging baby boomers without overburdening the economy.

“We will need to use natural supports to the full extent we can and save taxpayer-funded supports for people who really need them,” she said.

Ytive Prafke, an administrator in the St. Peter School District, said her district's responsibility goes beyond teaching during the school day to also “lightening the economic stress on families.” Children can't learn when their basic needs aren't met, she said, and many St. Peter students and their families are struggling.

There were 21 homeless students in the district last year and 40 percent of the district's families have incomes low enough to qualify for the free and reduced lunch program, she said.

The district and community partners provide food, school supplies and other supports, but Prafke said she believes not every family is receiving the support they need.

“We know there are families out there that are too proud to ask for help,” she said.

Anne Krisnik, executive director of the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition of Minnesota, said churches are stepping up to help with the growing number of people who are struggling to make ends meet. “But it's not enough to close the gap,” she said.

Much of the panel discussion revolved around evolving workforce needs and worker shortages.

“Many of the new positions are jobs we wouldn't even have dreamed of five years ago,” said LaBombard, whose company matches employers with new college graduates.

Many of the businesses that are reporting shortages of qualified workers are looking for special skills, panelists said.  State leaders need to do more to help people obtain those skills, some of the panelists said.

Minnesota's economic disparity between people who are white and people of color was also noted by multiple panelists. Only two other states have a larger gap than Minnesota, according to Krisnik.

Increasing the minimum wage was also debated. Krisnik called an increase essential to “help families in poverty.” LaBombard worried an increase would lead to businesses cutting employees or reducing employee's hours, ultimately hurting more low-income workers than it would help.

Approximately 4,000 people are expected to attend the two-day Nobel Conference. Many more people are remotely watching online streaming of the conference on their computers.

In addition to community members and Gustavus students, many of the attendees are high school students.

Vic Akemann, a high school science teacher from Stevens Point, Wisconsin, has been bringing students to the conference for nearly 25 years. This year over 20 of his students made the more than six-hour journey.

“It's just so illuminating for the students,” Akermann said. “It gives them access to all these great thinkers.”

The teens from Wisconsin said their favorite presentation during the conference's opening day was about economic morality.

Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University and founder of the Center for Advanced Hindsight, said government needs a better understanding of human behavior before it can effectively legislate.

The Isreali researcher shared about some of his many experiments he said were designed to “measure the backbone of human morality” by measuring their willingness to cheat for economic gain.

“The good news is reminding people of their own moralities just before the moment they are tempted can be very effective,” he said.

Americans aren't more prone to corruption than any other nationalities, he said. He's done his studies in numerous countries and found no significant differences in the results.

Day two of the conference will include presentations from three more visiting professors and from “Marketplace Money” radio show host Chris Farrell.

Planning for the 53rd Nobel Conference on Oct. 3 and 4, 2017 is already underway. The topic is “reproductive technology: how far do we go?”

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